When I was 11, my mother insisted that I continue to wear my hair gathered in pigtails, but I was no longer allowed to play tag with the boys on my block. I was old enough to walk to the corner store alone, yet too young to understand why grown men would stare as I passed them by.
One minute I was a little girl who fancied drop-waist lace dresses and believed in Santa Claus. Then, before I knew it, I was headed full-speed toward womanhood.
Why? My parents were trying to protect my girlhood. In their minds, the longer I looked innocent, the longer I’d actually be innocent. Still, my parents intuitively understood that innocence wasn’t a luxury for Black girls because outside of the safety of our home, we’d be held to different standards than white children. Childlike behaviors like talking too much in school — something I was really good at — would lead to harsher punishments.
“For many Black girls, girlhood is a neglected space,” said Vashti DuBois, founder and executive director of Germantown’s The Colored Girls Museum. “People were pushing us toward womanhood for our own protection and the cost was our childhood. We didn’t get to play. Crying was a sign of weakness.”
In honor of Women’s History Month and fueled by a $175,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, The Colored Girls Museum partnered with West Philadelphia gallery Slought to create a sacred space for Black women and girls to reflect on our childhoods, and for the rest of the world to acknowledge that, yes, we really did have one. The traveling show, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, named after Roberta Flack’s 1972 hit, features six portraits of Philadelphia girls between the ages of 6 and 18. The exhibit is open through April 30. (The Colored Girls Museum remains closed due to COVID-19.)
DuBois considers portraiture among the most important visual arts genres. Creating someone’s likeness is not a task to be rushed through or taken lightly. Details must be studied. Care must be taken. Last year, DuBois asked six Black women to choose a muse, get to know her and re-create her essence through the artists’ lens. “The idea was for these portraits to come out of a place of care and love,” DuBois said. “We asked the artist to take the time to look at the girl and really see her. And as we become engrossed in seeing her, we begin to remember our own childhood and see the little girl in ourselves.”
Black girls have always had to grow up fast. Period. Enslaved Black girls were forced to do the work of grown men on plantations. As teenagers, we were sent to work in white women’s homes as laundresses and wet nurses. Because we tend to develop earlier than white girls our same age, we’ve been dealing with catcalls for what seems like forever. At times, we’ve been called “fast” by our own mothers.
Little girls have even been expected to take on civil rights issues. In 1960, when she was only 6 years old, Ruby Bridges became the youngest person to integrate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. Was she chosen for her maturity? How mature can a 6-year-old be?
Treating children like they are older than their years is, in academic circles, referred to adultification, and it is a very common experience for Black girls, in particular. According to “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” a 2017 study funded by the Georgetown Center for Poverty and Inequality, compared with white girls the same age, survey participants perceived that Black girls need less nurturing, less protection, and less emotional support. The study also found that people believed Black girls needed to be comforted less, that we are more independent, and know more about adult topics.
“Our findings reveal a potential contributing factor to the disproportionate rates of punitive treatment in the education and juvenile justice systems for Black girls,” the researchers wrote in their executive summary.
This must explain why it was so easy for police officers to handcuff and pepper-spray a 9-year-old Black girl in Rochester, N.Y., earlier this year. In the video the little girl, who was clearly under mental duress, was told by police officers to stop acting like a child. Her response: “I am a child.”
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face is set up to look like the third floor of the The Colored Girls Museum, which is a quiet space for daydreaming meditation and reflection. Flack’s hauntingly seductive rendition of the song envelops the space. Rocking chairs ranging in size from adult to child-size are spaced throughout the gallery and a flat-screen TV features videos of Black girls hopping and skipping, drawing and playing, singing and dancing without a care in the world, just as children should.
The portraits are darling and resplendent. Celestial backgrounds pop. One girl poses with a pen, symbolizing her dream to write her way to fame and fortune. Eighteen-year-old Tyjanea Williams wears baggy jeans and a jacket rolled up to her elbows revealing tattooed arms and short hair twisted into baby locks. “Tyjanea is an athlete and guess what, she’s not smiling,” DuBois said. “A lot of times we can only accept Black girlhood if it appears a certain way. But all girlhood is complex and all of our experiences matter.”
I was most struck by the acrylic and mixed-media portrait West Philadelphia artist Misty Sol created of her daughter, Ayah Pearson. Ayah is wearing the dress of an African priestess with cats by her side, and she’s holding a machete for protection. “She’s a martial artist and she’s always loved knives,” Sol said of her daughter’s warrior spirit. “It was beautiful to be able to freeze the moment. It was nice to be able to listen to her and let her just be.”
Because of our parents’ eagerness to protect us and the world’s refusal to cherish us, our opportunity to play, explore, and make the mistakes of growing up was short shrift. The result: Many of us don’t trust ourselves. We have problems standing firm in our agency. Our inner child feels like she’s exposed all of the time. “Too many of us haven’t received grace,” DuBois said. “Too many of us don’t know how to give grace to ourselves. And too many of us have trouble extending it to others. Collectively speaking, we are really just learning how to care for ourselves.”
Speaking from experience, I can say DuBois is absolutely right.
For your safety
Visitors are required to schedule their trip through Eventbrite at least one hour prior to arrival. Admission is free and visits are limited to one hour; visitors are required to wear a mask and have their temperature checked.